Keith Lee Morris on Travelers Rest and why hotels are scary

Travelers Rest author Keith Lee Morris on his hotel horror

Travelers Rest, the new horror novel by Keith Lee Morris is out now and we absolutely loved it (read our review here). The tale of a family stranded by a blizzard in a creepy hotel, it’s a deeply disconcerting and creepy read that we highly recommend, and we were lucky enough to get to talk to the author of Dart League King and Call It What You Want about why hotels are naturally ghostly,

Could you give us a quick pitch for Traveler’s Rest?

An unsuspecting family gets trapped in an epic blizzard, separated from one another, lost in existential angst, and shuffled continuously between a surreal present and a mysterious past. There’s a creepy hotel, a mining accident, a TV that broadcasts images of ghosts, a precocious and athletic 10-year-old, a cynical anthropology professor, a woman in search of her destiny, and a crazy uncle in search of a good time, not to mention a diner that serves free chocolate pie. Something for everyone, hopefully.

What is it about hotels that make them such a good setting for a story like this?

Well, I think even under normal circumstances there’s something rather ghostly about hotels, particularly of the grand old-fashioned variety. Since the rooms are constantly occupied by different people, going in and out in a matter of hours or days, there’s a sense of rooms haunted by ghosts, places that have been filled with the lives of people for brief periods of time and then replaced by the lives of others, who have no knowledge of those who’ve just gone, except some slight aura that’s been left behind.

Hotels and hospitals are the only places we ever sleep where we don’t know who’s slept in the beds just before us, whose head was on the pillow only hours before we arrived. And because people go to hotels to get away from their everyday lives, there’s a sense that dramatic, unusual things are always on the verge of happening. Now make it an empty hotel, an abandoned hotel, and there’s a very sharp feeling of bygone days, of pleasures and pains belonging to the past that are no more. And then of course there are ALL THOSE ROOMS, with the potential for something suspenseful behind every door.

Filmmakers talk about how it’s impossible not to be reminiscent of The Shining when you’re making a haunted house movie, do you think that’s true for authors and their novels as well?

First, I’m going to have to admit that I’ve never read The Shining. I’ve read other Stephen King books, but not that one. I’ve seen the film, of course, and I really like it. But yes, there’s no doubt that anyone wandering into that territory has to be aware of the connection. In my case, I felt myself working AGAINST The Shining throughout—kind of understanding that in order to make the novel work, I always had to keep the movie at arm’s length. It was only an influence as a source of magnetic repulsion. If you wanted to think of the novel as a ship, The Shining would be the iceberg I was trying to steer away from.

This isn’t a traditional haunted house novel. Did you find the supernatural situation came from the characters and their issues, or had you always conceived it as a horror?

I’ve been writing what I think of as “dream stories” for twenty years, narratives in which the events that take place operate with a kind of dream logic, dissociated from everyday reality but close enough to it to feel uncomfortable and emotionally vital. I thought of Travelers Rest from the beginning as an extended version of that short story form. It was really just by accident that it picked up some of the trappings of the horror or suspense genre. For me, it’s a story about the four family members, and the elements of horror and suspense and time travel are just ways of getting at the deepest parts of those characters. I never thought of it as a horror novel even though I was certainly aware of using many of the devices associated with horror.

Author Keith Lee Morris
Author Keith Lee Morris

You’re also a writer of short fiction, what do you love about that medium?

You don’t have to work on a short story for five years! That’s number one. Other than that, I don’t think I find anything about the form inherently appealing, I mean in a way that makes it preferable to longer narratives. You hear writers talk about short stories as if they’re these exquisite jewels cut by masters of the craft, as if for some reason the short story is the true proving ground of the creative genius, the writer’s writer. But seriously—wouldn’t most people rather lose themselves in a novel? I would, both as a writer and a reader. There are many, many short stories I love intensely (one of them, Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” was a significant influence on Travelers Rest), but none of them, when you get right down to it, are Middlemarch.

As a professor of creative writing, what is the question you’re most often asked by budding authors?

That one’s easy—How do I get published? The ones who do end up getting published are usually the ones who don’t ask this question.

What is your favourite horror novel?

I don’t know that I have one. I don’t think I’m unsettled by the same things that typically unsettle other readers. It may be because I actually appeared in a horror movie once, a horror movie so bad that upon its release, if memory serves me correctly, one newspaper led off its review with the line, “This is the worst movie ever made.” That experience might have made me immune to the influence of horror movies/novels forever after. When I was a kid, though, I was a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories, and I did go through a Stephen King phase (The Dead Zone, The Stand) when I was a teenager.

The books that frighten me now are ones that involve sympathetic characters in uncomfortable, dangerous situations, either physically or psychologically. Probably Cormac McCarthy’s The Road caused me more sleepless nights than any other book I’ve ever read. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was quite disturbing. I was haunted by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Russell Banks’s Affliction. Knut Hamsun’s Pan. The first hundred or so pages of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. And I remember reading The Picture of Dorian Gray all alone in a cabin in Idaho during a snowstorm one night, with the eerie white light of snow clouds out the window, and lying awake a long, long time, just listening for anything that was there and anything that wasn’t. I love books that can scare me that way.

TRAVELERS REST, by Keith Lee MorrisPublished by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, out now, Hardback £12.99 / eBook £6.99.